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Large Classes and the Perception of Fairness

Whether you are teaching a class of 5 or 500, student perceptions of fair practices in the classroom are an important element in students' overall course satisfaction.

It may not surprise you that when faculty at one university were recently asked to rate themselves on a ten point scale (1 being most fair, 10 being the least) 74% of faculty rated themselves as 1 or 2. On the other hand, only 12% of their students gave such high ratings.

One of the reasons for this disparity in perceptions may be the way in which faculty and students define what constitutes fairness. There may also be some classroom practices in which faculty may be lax and which result in inequities as perceived by students. Consider the following practices that may well fall into this latter category.

  1. Not Monitoring Cheating. Some research indicates that up to 90% of students will cheat at least once during their college careers. A major factor that will determine how many times students consider cheating or actually do cheat is the degree to which cheating is discouraged, monitored, and punished.
  2. "Easy" Grading Standards. Occasionally there are instructors who advocate eliminating grades, and believe that all students who show effort should get As or at least As and Bs. Students may not agree, particularly because there is a segment of the student population who put forth only the amount of effort required to attain the particular grade they seek. Yet, effort is important and students tend to rate professors as fair when they consider effort in determining borderline grades.
  3. Lack of Classroom Standards. There may be some faculty who are lenient or do not have written rules for missed tests, late term papers, missed classes, and habitual tardiness. Just as some students will work as hard as necessary to get the grade they want, they will be as responsible as they have to be in following classroom rules and procedures. When students are required to seek prior approval for taking make-up tests or to request a change in grade in writing, fewer students make such requests.
  4. Not Using Tests as Learning Experiences. Wishing to save valuable class time, some faculty choose not to return exams in class or to discuss them thoroughly in class. Even if the professor tells students she will discuss them during office hours, unless students are mandated to come to those office hours at specific times, the majority will probably not take up the offer, thinking that you don't REALLY mean it. It is easy to dismiss this as student responsibility. Yet, when students go over the exam questions they missed, they remember the answers (and hopefully concepts) more easily in the future. They also rate faculty members who discuss tests as much more caring and fair than those who do not. Returning and discussing an exam even in a class of 150 can take as little as 15-20 minutes. In fact, it might be most productive to make such a time limit and to make it explicit. Students are apt to ask fewer non-substantive questions if they know the time is limited.
  5. Misusing Collaborative Learning. Collaborative and cooperative learning groups can encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning, teach critical thinking skills, and increase both learning and retention of conceptual material. However, group work is often conducted in ways which students see as unfair: dividing groups so that members of the same ethnic group are not allowed to work together; giving grades for the group product with no acknowledgment of individual effort; having no method of monitoring members who do not contribute to the group effort; requiring groups to work together outside of class which can impose special hardships on commuters or students with childcare considerations.
  6. Insensitivity to Diversity. In an effort to show sensitivity to diversity, some instructors do the exact opposite. For example, they might ask only the Chicano students in the class to give the point of view of Mexican-Americans, or use the pronoun he to the exclusion of she. Some instructors may be gender and ethnically sensitive, yet make negative remarks or jokes about blondes, heavy-weight people, or gays and lesbians. We are all human and have all made unflattering remarks about various groups or individuals. But faculty who achieve classrooms where all students are comfortable are always open to feedback on any remark or behavior in the classroom which shows insensitivity. (When receiving such feedback, a simple pause and acknowledgment of the insensitivity is usually all that is needed, along with a quiet mental-emotional note not to repeat faux pas).

Successful teaching involves more than improving lecture methods, employing new technologies and involving students in the learning process. Effective teaching includes an understanding of students and their perceptions of fair practices in the classroom.

1 This material was adapted from "In the Name of the Students" written by Rita Rodabaugh and distributed in the essay series Teaching Excellence: Toward the Best in the Academy. Svinicki, M (Ed.). Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education. 6, (3). 1994-1995.

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